JASIST Information Architecture Column June/July 2004

Out with the New! The IA Summit at Five Years

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, June/July 2004

This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 30, No. 5, June/July 2004, a publication of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 510, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA. Phone 1 (301)495-0900 http://www.asis.org

At the start of the fifth annual IA Summit in Austin (February 27-29, 2004), Peter Merholz asked those in attendance at the keynote to raise their hands if this was their first Summit. Nobody was counting, but I would guess that about one-third of the attendees so responded. When he asked for a show of hands from those who had attended all five Summits, there were far fewer of us with our hands in the air. Are we really down to only a dozen or so people who have been to them all? This is probably good news since we are attracting so many new folks to the Summit, but I do wonder what happened to those we lost along the way. But what a Summit it was! Of course, it was Austin, where you are guaranteed good weather, a great downtown and friendly locals (no riot police this year). The location may have contributed to the record numbers in attendance (more than 350 was the figure mentioned), and there was a party atmosphere about the place all weekend. That said, it also was a conference where the four parallel sessions running regularly throughout the weekend just about made everyone uncomfortable choosing what to see and hear.

I did my usual routine of sampling as much as I could, including hanging around the ASIS&T desk if only to meet more people. I only stayed around in those sessions with high value stickiness, where, like a good Web design, the content made it impossible for me to think of leaving (as opposed to those sticky sites which just won't let you leave even when you want to). I got to hear a little of everything, but only rarely did I see a whole session through to the end. There were exceptions and I really enjoyed, again, a session on navigation by Victor Lombardi, which probably appealed to my academic sensibilities more than some of the other sessions. I have been a strong critic of the whole idea of navigation as a driving force for design, but there is no doubting the allure of the concept for IAs – it was standing room only at this session as Victor gave a detailed overview of the various strands of research that have emerged in this area and how best IAs might use the findings.

I was also struck by how technical and even theoretical some of the presentations have become, which is a "plus" in my view. Previous Summits have rarely delved into the details and balked at theories, presenters preferring to keep discussion at a general level. This year we began to see some more unashamedly complicated material on relation browsers and Semantic-Web standards. Add to this the application of extreme programming methods to IA, a much-mentioned session on the use of personas (by five-time attendee George Olsen), case-studies on designing information for everyone from the visually impaired to the video-hungry, and you get a sense of the richness of this year's Summit. You can find pointers to these papers, slides, images and the blog at www.iaSummit.org/

I gave up talking about definitions of IA last year (I was driving my psychiatrist crazy) so it was with a real sense of accomplishment that I left the conference on Sunday afternoon without having discussed the topic or having accidentally overheard someone talking about it all weekend. If you want the true measure of progress in five years, there you have it!

Dick Hill ran a post-Summit survey of attendees, which established that it doesn't really matter who the keynote is or what dates the Summit is held. People really come for the networking opportunity. No real surprise there. Ever wonder why so many students still like to be in classes? Almost 90% of respondents rated the meeting as good or excellent, too. That we had a strong keynote and lots of back and forth between speakers and audience didn't hurt either. It's been five years, the Summit is pretty much a regular event now and writing a column about it has become a normal assignment for me too. Can we stop calling ourselves a new field now?

Comments and reactions to this column can be emailed to adillon@ischool.utexas.edu